Environmental quality and fertility: the effects of plant density, species richness, and plant diversity on fertility limitation

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The relationship between the environment and population has been of concern for centuries, and climate change is making this an even more pressing area of study. In poor rural areas, declining environmental conditions may elicit changes in family-related behaviors. This paper explores this relationship in rural Nepal looking specifically at how plant density, species richness, and plant diversity are related to women’s fertility limitation behavior. Taking advantage of a unique data set with detailed micro-level environmental measures and individual fertility behavior, I link geographically weighted measures of flora at one point in time to women’s later contraceptive use as a way to examine this complex relationship. I find a significant, positive relationship between plant density, species richness, and plant diversity and the timing of contraceptive use. Women in poor environmental conditions are less likely to terminate childbearing, or do so later, and therefore more likely to have larger families.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Households that move out of the study area are tracked and interviewed.

  2. 2.

    Because I include male methods of contraception (discussed below), this analysis is essentially using couples as the unit of analysis but only controlling for wife’s characteristics. I do not have data on the husbands for women who married after 1996 so I cannot control for both the husband’s and wife’s characteristics. As an alternative, I could have used husband as the unit of analysis, but faced with controlling for either the husband’s or the wife’s characteristics I elected to follow the majority of the literature and include information on the wives.

  3. 3.

    This sample also excludes 19 women who were missing data on any of the variables included in these analyses.

  4. 4.

    Limiting the sample to women who had no previous contraceptive use raises the possibility of left censoring. However, when I reduce the sample to include only women under age 25 in 1996, for whom previous contraceptive use rates are extremely low, the substantive conclusions drawn from the analyses do not change. In fact, the estimated effects are even greater than those presented below.

  5. 5.

    Data were also collected from 54 forest plots in two other areas, the Royal Chitwan National Park and along the Narayani river. However, plots in these areas were spaced (i.e., sampled) differently from those in the Barandabhar Forest and are under very different management protocols—the Royal Chitwan National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984 and is heavily guarded by mounted and armed guards. Because of these differences, I only present the results from analyses using information from the Barandabhar Forest. I did estimate models using information from all forest plots and found similar results to those presented here.

  6. 6.

    In contrast, diversity or species richness is likely less relevant for grassland plots.

  7. 7.

    I control for birth cohort as opposed to age because cohort will also control for some of the dramatic social change that as occurred over the data collection period. I did estimate models that include age as a continuous variable and found virtually the same results.

  8. 8.

    Note, using person-months does not artificially inflate standard errors (Allison 1982, 1984; Petersen 1986, 1991).

  9. 9.

    Because the 1996 interviews were collected over a period of 6 months, but the prospective data collection began for everyone in February 1997, the “first month” of the prospective data collection could have been as long as 6 months for some respondents. I include a control for whether the person–month was this first, potentially long, month in all of the analysis.


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This research was supported by Award Number R01HD032912 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development or the National Institutes of Health. I am thankful to Rebecca Schewe, Amanda Clay Powers, Dirgha Ghimire, and William Axinn for their help with this research and to all of the staff at the Institute for Social and Environmental Research in Chitwan, Nepal, for their data collection efforts.

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Correspondence to Sarah R. Brauner-Otto.

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Brauner-Otto, S.R. Environmental quality and fertility: the effects of plant density, species richness, and plant diversity on fertility limitation. Popul Environ 36, 1–31 (2014) doi:10.1007/s11111-013-0199-3

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  • Natural resources
  • Environmental quality
  • Contraceptive use
  • Fertility
  • Population
  • Nepal